AUSTIN, Texas — There are bands that play the South by Southwest Music Conference — skinny, unwashed four-pieces who soullessly schlep gear from showcase to showcase — and then there are bands that play South by Southwest, starry-eyed dreamers who attack any stage with reckless abandon in hope of landing that big record deal that will make them unspeakably rich. Paramore are not one of those bands. Neither are N.E.R.D. or Britney Spears (she's not even a band, but we digress), although on one glorious night in Austin, two-thirds of them sort of were.
Confused? Welcome to Friday at South by Southwest, a day that featured a pair of big-name headliners, one-supersized rumor and a whole lot of not making sense. (Don't worry, we're here to sort everything out.)
First and foremost, pop-punk heroes Paramore, who sat down with MTV News earlier in the day to let fans know they're not breaking up, headlined one of the most un-SXSW events of the entire week: a multi-band pileup for the MySpace generation, sponsored by spooky-ooky retailer Hot Topic and packed with local kids who wouldn't know a SXSW badge from a dial-up Internet connection.
Held on the outskirts of town at hangar-esque rock club La Zona Rosa, this was to be Paramore's first performance since they canceled a string of European dates to work out some rather pesky (and nefarious sounding) "internal issues," and clearly, the band was treating it as a rather huge coming-out party.
"I know there's been a lot of craziness going on, and you've probably all heard about it," frontwoman/firecracker Hayley Williams told the crowd, pausing to allow appropriate time for the squeals to pass. "We all just wanted you to know that music is the one thing we love, and no matter what you've heard, we won't stop doing it."
And then they got down to doing just that, ripping through a set full of their hits ("Misery Business," "Crushcrushcrush") and older (at least for them) songs, like "Woah" and "Emergency," from their 2005 debut, All We Know Is Falling. Through it all, Williams — who, according to label reps, has been battling vocal strain for a while now — belted out as best as she could, and when her voice faltered, she simply thrust the microphone into the crowd, which was more than willing to do the work for her. Guitarist Josh Farro and bassist Jeremy Davis flanked her, busting out chords and pulling out some truly Trohman/Wentz-worthy onstage acrobatics. Oh, and drummer Zac Farro totally barfed up some Mexican food he had eaten for dinner.
Truly, Paramore were giving it their all — and then some more.
And at the end of the set, the band joined hands and bowed in unison as fans held up a countless array of hand-held devices. Paramore left the stage amid a blizzard of cell-phone camera flashes, and their message was clear: We're a band, we're united, we're not going anywhere. It was the kind of context you rarely get from a SXSW show, and though Paramore aren't your typical SXSW band (they've sold more records than 14 Vampire Weekends, 100 Times New Vikings and 2,000 Lightspeed Champions combined) — it's something we could get used to seeing more often 'round these parts.
Meanwhile, as Paramore were exiting the stage, something potentially huge was bubbling up across town: namely, rumors that Britney Spears would be making a SXSW appearance, performing with Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D. during their late-night set at Stubb's. It seemed improbable, but hey, stranger things have happened (though not many) and within hours, it had been texted from handheld to handheld with such veracity that it had seemingly become fact.
Of course, it never happened (Britney at SXSW? Come on!) and, to be quite honest, Pharrell didn't need her anyway. The line to get into Stubb's stretched for miles up Red River Street, and when Skateboard P and his N.E.R.D. cohorts finally took the stage, all the struggle was worth it. With a pair of funky drummers, a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and sampler, N.E.R.D. played a rock-star set that mixed nearly punk thrash with funk keyboards, outer space effects, acid-rock guitar and hip-hop swagger.
Williams commanded the stage, bounding back and forth during hard funk jams on "Brain" and "Rock Star," which found the stage filled with nearly two dozen posse members, waving red flags, parading their Mohawks and snapping photos of the thousands of fans in the crowd bouncing up and down in unison. Williams has clearly spent time in a mosh pit — as evidenced by his scissor-kicking, arm-swinging dance moves — but as loose as he got at the start of "Lapdance," the man is a meticulous professional and when the instrumentation got a bit sloppy, he made the band start over.
By the time the set ended with a punk-funk take on "She Wants to Move" (which slipped into Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" for a few bars), Williams had proven to the crowd that while his genius might be in the studio, his heart is on the stage, where he breathes new life into his creations. And you thought Britney had a Jekyll and Hyde complex ...
Other Highlights From A Fantastic Friday In Austin, From Our Intrepid (and Tired) MTV News Team.
At Prague (the Austin venue, not the Czech city), I finally got to see F--- Buttons, the U.K. electro-punk duo who take the stage at opposite ends of a table as though they're playing some laptop-driven game of foosball. Their sound was tribal, droning and pounding, with all kinds of effects (including singing with mic in mouth).
Next up, we tried — and failed — to catch — Vampire Weekend at Antone's, and instead caught the second half of a set by Plants and Animals at Maggie Mae's. It was the second time I'd seen the Montreal rockers and they were so good they made me wish I hadn't spent half an hour trying to get into VW.
Then it was back to Prague for Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox's side project that allows him to play a more relaxed, organic role than the one he plays fronting his angsty main band, Deerhunter. In fact, tonight Atlas Sound were even more taut and rocking than when I saw them in New York a few weeks ago, delivering a great set that ended with Bradford taking over the drums for an extended jam. I watched the show with NoCal pop band the Morning Benders, whom I had met earlier in the day and whose frontman Chris Chu is a big Bradford fan.
From there it was off to find the most talked-about late show of the night — a free show on an outdoor pedestrian bridge by the one and only No Age (check out some highlights from our interview with them right here). Unfortunately, we went to the wrong bridge, but another MTV pal found it and wrote about the show here.
Here's what I liked on Friday: Working for A Nuclear Free City, a great electro four-piece from Manchester, England, that sounds like every great band (electro or otherwise) from Manchester, England. Think the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, and, uh, Kasabian, all playing together at once. Caught Vampire Weekend — more on them in a second — and my life did not change. They play decent if disposable gimmick pop, though the record's really good. Other highlights included being the first reporter in the world to talk to Paramore following their "are-they/aren't-they" break-up drama, and seeing My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James (who played a soaring set on Thursday night) purchase VitaminWater — using only change — from the snack shop in the lobby of the Omni Hotel.
At the annual Spin party at Stubb's, it seemed like the backlash to the backlash was already beginning for much-buzzed-about world-popsters Vampire Weekend, whose set was politely received — but not wholly embraced — by the crowd. Take, for instance, the gentlemen standing right by the stage who joked about how the band called one of their tunes a "Jurassic song," which led to the quip, "Yeah, like, it's getting old already." Not two feet away, another jaded hipster said to her friend, "I don't get what the big deal is."
The same couldn't be said for the response to the band that closed the show, Los Angeles punk legends X, who broke up before most of the guys in VW were probably born. Busting out such proven crowd pleasers as "White Girl," "We're Desperate" and "The Hungry Wolf," the band played a lean, classic set, even if lead singer Exene Cervenka baffled the crowd with a nearly floor-length black dress that looked like a hair stylist's tunic mixed with a nun's habit.
I kind of liked the recent debut from the trippy Brooklyn band Heloise & the Savoir Faire, who are signed to actor Elijah Wood's Simian Records imprint. But I had no idea I was in for a performance-art freakout featuring freaky Kabuki makeup, interpretive dance, disco cabaret, dancers in skull shirts and lingerie and a lead singer in a spangly gold dress and smeared face paint. It kind of reminded me of the Scissor Sisters at times — but with more, well, everything.
I popped in to the packed wall-to-wall Pangaea club for a brief set by currently labeless-in the-U.S. (according to singer Craig Nicholls) Australian rockers the Vines. Their uneven gig included such old favorites as "Highly Evolved," the meandering "Vision Valley" and the lung-scraping breakthrough hit "Get Free," during which Nicholls did his best banshee wail.